It’s been 20 years since the groundbreaking sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me, first appeared as a radio show on BBC radio 4. An immediate hit, it appeared in its reincarnated television form in 1998 and completed a run of three highly popular series, making national treasures of its stars. One such star, Sanjeev Bhaskar, talked to Tommy Lumby about the seriousness of the absurd and the future of comedy in the age of individualism.
I’ve always been drawn to comedy that goes close to the bone. It seems to enable people to confront tricky issues and examine them in a way that would be harder to do in a different context. In the first television series of Goodness Gracious Me especially, there were some sketches which dealt pretty head on with racism. I asked Mr. Bhaskar if it felt controversial for him and the other writers using this kind of material.
“On the one hand, it never felt controversial,” he explained, “as the content of many of the sketches were personal. On the other hand, we tried to be mindful of how what we were trying to say might be perceived. The point was never to simply offend someone. That would’ve been a) to miss the point of what we were trying to say, and b) to get mired in the notions of offence rather than the subject matter. We were careful in not tarring entire communities or groups with the same brush and tried to make the characters specific rather than generic. I believe we even treated our ‘targets’ , whether Asian or not, with a degree of affection. We weren’t ashamed or embarrassed to be British or Asian and particularly both at the same time.”
Bhaskar’s last point struck me as significant. One characteristic of racism is its determinism, its habit of saying, ‘You’re this!’ based on a limited set of criteria. However, it also occurred to me that a certain kind of pigeonholing can come from people with much better intentions. I thought of one of my favourite sketches: ‘Sarah the English wife’: A group of young British Asians are 48 sitting round a table at a restaurant discussing their friend Ravi’s recent marriage to a ‘non-Asian’ woman. As the couple arrive, one of the group reminds the rest to ‘try and make her feel welcome’. Much to their shock, however, Sarah (played by Fiona Allen) arrives wearing a pink and gold salwar kameez and speaks to them in an unconvincing but pronounced Indian accent. Trying to maintain some semblance of normality, one of the friends asks them how they met. ‘My father had promised me to Ravi when I was nine years old. We were brought up together in the same village in Uttar Pradesh,’ says Sarah. Dumbfounded, they all turn to Ravi. “We met at a nightclub in Putney,” he replies. For me, this sketch brilliantly sends up the archetypal liberal who exoticises other people’s cultures. I wondered to what extent these sketches came from Bhaskar and the other writers’ personal experiences.
“Most came from personal experiences, others from observations and the really silly ones were just absurd flights of fancy. ‘Sarah the English wife’ came from us bumping into people who were professed Indophiles and embraced our Asian culture more than we did. We just took it to a ridiculous level, it being a comedy and all.”
Bhaskar has described the experience of making GGM as ‘cathartic’. For me, this strikes right at the heart of why comedy which deals with difficult subject matter is so important. I asked him exactly what he meant by that.
“A lot of the absurdities that come with any kind of clash, be it age difference, gender or culture (and in many cases in our sketches, all three at the same time) are ripe areas for comedy. A lot of these, we [the writers] thought we harboured in our own heads, thinking it was specific to only us. When we got together, we realised we were all carrying around the same strange thoughts and observations and then were able to put them down and share them. It did feel very cathartic. When it was then embraced as warmly by the audience, it felt more shared and common an experience than we had possibly imagined. And the fact that catharsis and sharing went across cultural lines was one of the biggest joys of doing the show.”
I was intrigued by his use of the word ‘absurd’. There is an absurd streak which runs through GGM, but some people associate the absurd with ‘light’ comedy. How important is the absurd, I wondered, in dealing with controversial subject matter?
“The absurd is essential in these matters. Taking any kind of conflict to its most extreme can 49 expose just quite how ridiculous the original argument can be or certainly what it can lead to.”
Some of the sketches that deal with religion are quite absurd. I asked if it would be harder now to do that kind of satire on such a mainstream platform. “We never made fun of any religion, we did perhaps use practitioners of religions (or how they seem to have interpreted it) as a target for humour. I didn’t have a problem with anyone believing whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t then commandeer it and tailor it to their own weird view of the world. Religion itself wasn’t ever the target. It probably is harder to do that now. Sensitivities on the subject are such that people are far quicker to jump up in a personally affronted way without attempting to unearth the point being made.” This notion of personal offence has come to prominence recently, especially in regard to universities. The adoption of ‘safe space’ policies by many student unions and the refusal of platform to controversial speakers has led many to accuse universities of placing the right ‘not to be offended’ over freedom of expression. Some blame identity politics for fostering this hypersensitive mentality. Bhaskar went to university in the 1980s, when identity politics was emerging as a major cultural force. Now the Chancellor of Sussex University, what difference does he see in how today’s generation of students approach identity politics?
“Gender identity seems to me to have made the largest strides. Women are far clearer about their value, achievements and potential than back in the 1980’s. The same, to a lesser extent can be said of the LGBT community. Cultural identity is the one area which seems more fraught. Various interest groups attempting to define it for everyone else seems more prevalent now than back then. I never had a problem with being a hybrid of cultures. I still don’t.”
In a recent interview, Bhaskar made a poignant remark about the loss of community in Britain, how what once were ‘our’ rights have become ‘my’ rights. Some view identity politics as symptomatic of (or even responsible for) this increasing individualism. In an increasingly individualistic society, are people becoming less empathetic?
“I’ve always believed the 80’s killed off a certain sense of community. The ‘us’ seemed a far more inclusive and broader term than it does now; the narrower the ‘us’, the broader the ‘them’. Ultimately, that meant a far more fractured society which helps no one. The smaller ‘us’ feels more isolated and with a bunch of smaller ‘us’s’ it 50 means people are less ready to be empathetic, as they feel their small ‘us’ has more to lose. ‘Better together’ has been used as a campaign slogan a few times but I think at a human and social level, it happens to be completely true. Sometimes I think that the only thing that could bring us all closer together is a movie style Aliens from outer space invasion.”
What does all this mean for comedy?
“For comedy, it means that people may end up looking to have their world view reinforced by more and more niche material, which can in turn just reinforce the notion of small ‘us’ness’.”
Tommy contributes interviews and articles for The Gull. After graduating with a BA in English literature from Queen Mary U.L. Tommy worked as a language teacher in Ecuador for two years and is now studying for his MA in Journalism at Cardiff University. Follow Tommy’s Twitter Feed @tommylumby